Many years before she graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a BFA in Musical Theater, Milwaukee native Susan Maris was enrolled in the school’s ambitious “College For Kids” program.
Maris, who’s starring at American Stage in an extraordinary production of Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky, once took an astronomy class, about which she remembers absolutely nothing (the significance of this will be revealed momentarily).
“What I do remember,” she says, “is my acting class. I was a little girl, 5 or 6. The acting teacher asked me to ‘blossom like a flower.’ My mom was there. And I remember doing this very specific movement, and my mom started crying. And thought ‘Oh! I … feel like I like this.’”
Silent Sky is based on a true story. Maris plays Henrietta Leavitt, who joined the staff of the Harvard College Observatory in the year 1902.
In those days of women’s suffrage, men did all the heavy scientific work, leaving the data-collecting, filing and cataloguing to the ladies in the office.
Henrietta Leavitt’s aspirations ran far greater, as Silent Sky brilliantly lays out, and with time, persistence and more vision than a lot of male astronomers she made a series of significant discoveries – scientific building blocks that would change the course of our understanding of the universe.
“I think that Lauren Gunderson has done an excellent job of creating a powerful theme structure that works for human emotion, but is also applicable to science,” explains Maris. “So the triangulation that Henrietta feels between her career and her family and romance and adventure … career is winning for most of the show.
“And then in the second act it’s like ‘Wait a minute … these other, very important parts of my triangle have perhaps been under-developed in how I’ve lived my life.’”
Although names, characters and situations have been changed and/or created out of whole cloth, Silent Sky adheres to the essential truth, that Leavitt was a pioneer in more ways than one.
The show’s plot, explains Maris, matches the triangulation of how the stars were mapped.
“Kudos to Lauren Gunderson, because I think she’s built in a way to open anyone up – if you’re a science person, you’re going to like this show, of you’ve ever had a family, or felt love, or felt the pull between career and personal life, this is going to speak to you.”
Maris is joined onstage by four extremely gifted actors – “this is truly an ensemble show,” she proudly declares – and given a dynamic stage on which to tell the story. Steve K. Mitchell’s set design, Lynn Chase’s lightning design and a haunting, original score by Jeremy Douglass create an otherworldly, almost breathless feeling. It captures, again and again, the sense of awe and wonder that comes from peering into the infinite unknown.
It was director Kristin Clippard, Maris said, who insisted that Henrietta wear a bright red skirt – it literally pops out of the post-Victorian office set, adding a hint of color like a blinking Cephid star in a night sky.
Learning all of Henrietta’s “science-speak,” Maris laughs, was a tricky business.
“I had to let my enthusiasm for my life and my work totally take over, because the more I thought about ‘scientist’ and ‘astronomer’ …
“I realized that’s in the language, I just had to get myself on board, understand it enough. I mean, I’m not doing these equations, and doing photometry, in my spare time. I had to understand it enough to sell it.
“But I also had to infuse her with as much life and energy – and myself – as possible. Which is kind of Acting 101. But the more I did that, the more gravitational pull I felt with my cast members, and with the audience.”
All in a day’s work for this veteran, Equity actor who lives in New York City but works – and she works a lot – at regional theaters in cities across America.
“Any acting job is hard to get!” Maris says. “But what I found was that I can dip out of town and go to a LORT (League of Resident Theatres) contract, and make a living wage. And sublet my place in New York City – although that’s different now that I’m married. I’ve been able to make a living doing regional theater and do parts that I love. And experience different parts of the country.”
Silent Sky marks her first appearance in St. Petersburg. “I really like it,” Maris enthuses. “I think it’s a charming town and it’s growing on me every day. Given that I live in New York City, I love walking, and I think St. Pete is a pretty walkable town.
“It’s eclectic and quirky and artistic – and I dig it, I really do.”
Info and tickets here.